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Volume 27, Number 4July/August 1976

In This Issue

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To Value The Past

Written and photographed by William Tracy
Additional photographs by Gian Luigi Scarfiotti

Things are changing fast in the Arabian Gulf. Since the advent of oil and its recent emergence as the major economic fact of life, many of the old ways have been disappearing rapidly. Too rapidly for some leaders, who fear that industrialization and social change may be achieved at the expense of the region's rich cultural heritage.

One such leader is Shaikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al-Thani, Amir of Qatar, a small peninsular state which juts due north into the Gulf from the coast of the larger Arabian Peninsula. Anxious lest the younger generation forget the historic streams which shaped their country—the desert, with its migratory tribes, and the sea, with its coastal communities of fishermen, pearlers and traders—Shaikh Khalifa last year opened a national museum devoted to Qatar's nomadic and seafaring origins. Three years in the planning, and strategically placed on a seaside complex of nearly 12 acres, the museum offers gardens, restored residences, a spacious Museum of the State and a striking Museum of the Sea, which includes an aquarium and a pleasant lagoon in which five dhows float at anchor.

There are, certainly, many museums in the Middle East already. Those of Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad, to cite just three, have world-wide reputations—and justly so. But until the Qatar National Museum opened last year the Gulf region lacked a special showcase for its rich and varied past. Both Kuwait and Bahrain have small museums and Saudi Arabia's Department of Antiquities is hard at work on an ambitious $400-million plan to build 13 regional museums and a central National Museum in Riyadh. In the meantime, however, the new complex on the shore at Doha—capital of Qatar—houses the largest collection of ethnographical, ecological and historical material assembled on eastern Arabia and the Gulf. It also, according to a London Times critic, "promises to set a new standard for such institutions in the Middle East."

Much of the success of the Qatar National Museum derives from the initial decision to restore a walled complex of 10 crumbling but dignified seaside halls and residences from which the ruling Al-Thani family governed Doha from the mid-19th century until about the time of World War II. A key factor in the choice of the buildings as the site of the museums was Shaikh Khalifa's childhood recollections; he had lived in one as a boy and remembered with fondness their breezy terraces and cool dim interiors, thickly carpeted and lined with cushions. But there were sound architectural reasons as well: the character of the buildings was distinctive to the Arabian Gulf, yet also reflected the influence of three countries involved in Qatar's history: Ottoman Turkey, British India and Persia. And although the residences were modest structures, the vertical lines of the supporting piers, the deep-set shadowed windows and the delicate stucco ornamentation gave them an appealing grace. The Amir gave the job of restoring the old buildings to the Ministry of Public Works and personally chose Beirut architects Irving and Jones (See Aramco World, July-August 1971 and January-February 1972) to design compatible new buildings. He also designated Michael Rice and Company of London, who had advised on the small Bahrain museum, to plan the interiors.

According to all concerned with the planning, restoration and construction, Shaikh Khalifa followed the project closely from conception to completion. And the result reflects the concern: the simple, airy feeling of a Greek village with plaster surfaces gleaming like marble, delicate stucco patterns picked out in shadows and then woven repeatedly into inlaid floors, screens, signboards, brochures and even light fixtures. Outside the museum sparrows swoop in and out of the pillared verandas and perch saucily on rain spouts and lattice work, and hedge-lined gravel paths line gardens of flowering jasmine, frangipani and rose bushes in the shade of acacia and cypress trees.

Another striking feature is the one-story Museum of the Sea—a memorial to the time when Qatar controlled a third of the Gulf's once-important pearling fleet.

In the basement, the Aquatic Biological Consultancy Services of England has provided a small aquarium with a dozen large tanks devoted to the Gulf's marine life. But the eye-catcher is outdoors: a dredged lagoon in which are anchored five specially commissioned dhows, the famous sailing vessels in which Gulf sailors explored the Indian Ocean and beyond. The museum dhows may be among the last of these old wooden craft to be built without now-standard modifications for inboard engines (See Aramco World, March-April 1974).

In planning the Museum of the State the architects and designers hoped to capture in exhibits a span of human experience covering some 200,000 years—from the Old Stone Age through the coming of Islam and including the present Oil Age. But presenting the culture of the Bedouin posed an unusual problem. Bedouin life, adapted to the harshness of the desert and the need to travel with a minimum of' goods, is essentially non-material. Museum planners, therefore, decided to make extensive use of tapes and films to tell the story of life in the desert. To capture what is probably the outstanding cultural achievement of the Bedouin—his rhythmic poetry and prose—the planners have mounted on the walls written excerpts and stanzas expressing the themes of nomadic life and the wisdom of Islam. One, on bravery, captures both:

I said to my Soul
When she was seized by fear
In the face of my enemies' might:
O my soul
Shed fear
For in vain do you try to gain
One day more than your allotted time.
So holdfast in the presence of Death;
Be patient
Immortality on Earth
Is a futile quest.

The museum is built on a human scale. Its exhibits are not severely institutional, but informally arranged to guide the visitor on a leisurely stroll that links the life and customs of the past with the discoveries of today. At the entrance, for example, an animated film, projected in the darkness of a desert well, shows the geological history of the region and concludes with views of the Arabian Gulf photographed from space. But close by an inscription on the wall pointedly tells the story of creation according to Sura 41, verse 2 of the Koran: "... turned He to the heaven when it was smoke, and said unto it and unto the earth: 'Come, both of you, willingly or loth.' They said: 'We come obedient.'"

Throughout the museum, displays are diverse and lively. They include a large wall map of prehistoric sites and, in a dimly lit room, a mural of rock carvings and an exhibit of stone hand axes and burial urns. There are displays on astronomy and geography, collections of swords, muskets, jewelry and design, and films covering music, weaving, storytelling and coffee making. One section displays Bedouin artifacts in wool, leather, wood, copper, brass and iron; it takes in carpets, saddlebags, pillows, hangings, bowls, chests and saddles. Three smaller rooms are devoted to the horse, the camel and the desert Arab's hunting partners, the falcon and the saluki, and a section on ecology displays charts, graphs and maps on rainfall, temperature and bird migrations plus handsome large color transparencies of wildlife, including the rare, legendary Arabian oryx. The museum's material on fauna and flora was prepared by two Aramco World contributors, David Harrison (January-February 1970) and James P. Mandaville (January-February 1968).

In the last section a "Tower of Light," surrounded by a graceful circular staircase, rises to the final exhibit: a second-story gallery of glass and chrome in which large photographic panels depict the coming of oil and the progress of the modern state. It is a dramatic finale to the story of Qatar which leaves visitors—the creators of Qatar's National Museum hope—with a new-found respect for the values and customs of those who came before.

William Tracy is assistant editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the July/August 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1976 images.